In a land where the impoverished millions bother least about the State as an agency of any help are best served by being gagged, more so by the fear of it.
August 29 was unlike any other day marked to observe an International Day in Bangladesh. It was the Intl Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances — and where on earth is there a befitting venue than Bangladesh to not just observe it but become possessed by the spectre of harrowing incidences of people who were (and are) being almost routinely made to disappear.
The Bengali equivalent of disappearance, goom is more pronounced these days than perhaps any other to signify State terror and persecution. With no sign of respite, the chilling tales are doing the rounds — in cities, small towns, even villages. The victims who years ago happened to be social and political activists, journalists, human rights workers or persons with dissenting views, have meanwhile been joined by others from the flanks — rich and poor, a good number of whom lack any proper credential to attest to any social or professional identity.
Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, known for its screaming rallies round the year now witnesses silence of hushed groups of people — further muted in the time of pandemic by face masks — lining up at conspicuous city centres like the streets fronting the National Press Club or the national Museum with handwritten placards and pictures of their dear ones missing for months and years.
Local newspapers made headlines on the observance of the Day, but with oblique hints to what befell the victims. The lead English daily The Daily Star, however, was a bit less than hushed in its headline: Truth Dwells in their Silence.
Whose silence? Strangely, those who had the lucky star to return after months or years do not speak preferring to remain silent — about who picked them up and what followed. One need not be too naïve to ask why. It’s fear as though of Kafkaesque proportion, inscrutable for commoners to take on.
A social media post or a like comment endorsing the post is a good enough prospect to be whisked away in broad daylight. Be it plainclothes or men in uniform from the country’s elite force, the fate is a journey to an unknown destination, blindfolded, as the ritual seems to demand. It is the Digital Security Act that eases the process, or shields the escapade as an action under the law. Curiously, such social media posts need not be about the party in power or someone at the helm. Criticism of police bribery or harassment or about a petty ruling party man stealing relief material is potentially threatening to have one missing.
Shafiqul Islam Kazol disappeared on March 10 after a ruling party MP sued him under the Digital Security Act for a Facebook post criticising him. There is no one to answer where he was and who took him. The family members are totally distraught seeking his whereabouts. Hridy, a nine-year-old girl is all tears, remembering her father Parvez Hosain who is missing since December 2013. A former Brigadier General, son of the Jamaat leader Golam Azam, the latter now dead and convicted on charges of war crime during the war of liberation, is missing for four years. Citing cases will unnecessarily make a list long.
It is not at all surprising to see that there are platforms in the country of families who had lost family members to enforced disappearances. Mayer Dak, one such platform, reports that 97 people went missing in 2018. Of them, 23 are still traceless, dead bodies of 12 were found, and the rest either returned after a certain period or were arrested subsequently by different law enforcement agencies. According to the human rights group, Odhikar, a total of 553 persons have become victims between 2009 and 2019, and in the past six months, 14 others went missing. The stories of these incidents are almost similar. Family members and friends say that these people were picked up, either from their homes or from the streets, by members of law enforcing agencies. But trying to trace them either in police custody or in jail is all too frustrating. However, according to another human rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), some do return ‘mysteriously’. Between 2014 and August 2018, of the 310 abductees, 33 returned — though all of them refused to divulge any details of their disappearance.
Bangladesh is a signatory to multiple legally binding international treaties, to prevent enforced disappearances. Appearing before the United Nations Committee against Torture (UNCT) in June 2019, for the first time since ratifying the Convention 20 years ago, Bangladesh’s representatives emphatically denied any incidents of enforced disappearances. However, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) has its own obligation to speak out. In its report, FIDH said these are “part of a concerted strategy executed by State actors.” Describing these as “systematic” and “amount to a State policy”, the FIDH insisted that since “most of the victims were targeted on political grounds… these acts [qualify] as a crime against humanity.”
So, is it the hushed silence that must prevail? In a land where the impoverished millions bother least about the State as an agency of any help are best served by being gagged, more so by the fear of it.
Wasi Ahmed, a novelist, short story writer, and journalist, lives in Dhaka.